Why The Dark Crystal Is Queer (And Why That Matters)

Published: June 12, 2023
Categories: Commentary, Feature

This article was written by Tough Pigs pal Cypress R. Thanks, Cypress!

I consider myself to be something of a die-hard Dark Crystal fan. I have figurines, tattoos, shirts, books, bags, art that I’ve bought, and art that I’ve made. I’ve seen the movie and the Age of Resistance show more times than I can count. In fandom spaces online, before people really know me, they know that I’m the Dark Crystal Guy. I live, breathe, and sleep Thra, I think about Dark Crystal more than anyone else I know.

I’m also nonbinary.

To the average person, these things may seem like they have next to no correlation. What does my gender identity have to do with my interests? On the outside, nothing. But viewing the world of Thra through even the most basic queer lens uncovers rich (canonical!) lore that wrecks the gender binary as we know it to manifest in The Dark Crystal

Female Gelfling have wings, male Gelfling don’t. Everybody knows this. It’s made obvious in just about any Dark Crystal media you can find, hammered into your brain usually by a female character playfully teasing a male character.

This used to frustrate me a lot. I would think, you create this world so far removed from our own and there’s still a rigid gender binary?! I know it was the 80’s, but come on! We had Bowie, Prince, Freddie Mercury! Why does it have to be so limiting?! Of course, even the most progressive cisgender people in the 80’s wouldn’t have been able to get away with something as gender-bendy as what my little queer heart would want, so I don’t think of it as a flaw of the franchise now. Instead, I look at it through the matriarchal lens it was probably meant to be seen through, though that’s an essay for another day.

The world of Thra is very different to our own Earth: the main characters are humanoid enough to be relatable, but inhuman enough to be slightly uncanny. The villains and side characters are completely alien. There are even three suns in the sky! But the metaphorical songs they sing, the fundamentals, are very similar. There are diverse flora and fauna, many different cultures and clans cohabitating and tackling issues such as capitalism and environmentalism.

It’s meant to be familiar and comfortable and new and shocking all at once. Jen especially is meant to represent the viewer, discovering the world for the first time, and his relationships with that world and the characters around him are crafted so that the viewer can experience Thra through their own eyes. 

Because of this, you might assume the appropriately 80’s gender binary is wholly rigid all across Thra. Luckily for us, there are more hints to genderqueer Thralings than you can see on the surface, and luckily for you, I know a lot about them!

Let’s start with the creatures that aren’t technically from Thra: the Skeksis, and by extension the Mystics, have no defined gender. This is a fact stated by Jim Henson himself. “We’ve never known whether the Skeksis were male or female,” he says in The World Of The Dark Crystal behind the scenes documentary. “We’ve always kind of liked the idea of them being some uncomfortable mixture in between.” (These aren’t exactly pleasant words to describe nonbinary and genderqueer people, but seeing as the Skeksis are the baddies, we’ll let it slide for now.)

skekEkt the Ornamentalist is called out particularly as being more feminine and dainty than the other Skeksis are — their pronouns are often a subject of debate among Dark Crystal fans, as the official sources often list them as he/him, but many people default to using she/her. 

The Mystics are described similarly in The Dark Crystal Novelization, written by A.C.H. Smith: “All [urSu] had answered was that the urRu had evolved as a species of neither gender, and that it was therefore a subject of which he had no concept.” Seeing as they’re the other halves of the Skeksis, and the urSkeks themselves are large beings of glowing light, it only makes sense for the Mystics to not have any real gender either. 

The novelization also states that Jen himself “was not entirely confident he knew the difference between the genders,” as he had never seen a female of his own species or any other before meeting Aughra (and he wasn’t even sure that Aughra was a female!). Pairing that with his bewilderment at Kira’s wings and his being raised by the genderless urRu, a strong argument can be made that Jen himself is nonbinary, or genderless like his caretakers. At the very least, queer fans of The Dark Crystal can take solace in knowing that even their hero Jen doesn’t understand gender very well. 

The way our two Gelfling heroes are raised plays a large part in their gender identities, much like it does in real life. Kira was raised by the Podlings, who had a close enough relationship with the Gelfling to be able to teach her Gelfling language and culture, since she knew that female Gelfling had wings while males did not. Her idea of gender was molded by what the Podlings taught her of her ancestors’ culture, and thus she clearly states she is and identifies as a girl. This contrasts with the way Jen was raised, with no obvious gender influence or knowledge of Gelfling or Gelfling culture at all. 

Of course, like our own cultures, Gelfling society wasn’t exactly cut and dry, black and white binary either. Front and center on the Wall of Destiny, the ancient carvings that tell of the prophecy, is a Gelfling who appears to have both a beard and a pair of wings. It’s unclear who this is meant to represent, though since Gelfling biology generally follows human biology, we can say with no small amount of confidence that this winged, bearded Gelfling was “genderspicy.”

It’s not just Gelfling and the Skeksis and Mystics who float around on the gender spectrum. Mother Aughra, created from Thra’s need for a voice and formed out of stone and wood, is (was?) intersex. When asked by Jen in the novelization whether she’s female, she says “Female, yes, bit that lasts is female. Bit gone rotten is male. Too busy.” The spirit of Thra in physical form, intersex! Even mothers, women, the basis of the Gelfling matriarchal culture, are fluid. 

All of this is just in the original movie and novelization, too! This isn’t even touching the Netflix series, in which same sex couples are canonized with Deet’s two dads, and skekLach is referred to only with she/her pronouns, or the novels and comics with urSan the Swimmer and skekSa the Mariner who both use she/her pronouns. If you know where to look, you can find genderqueerness anywhere in Thra. 

“Okay, Mr. Dark Crystal Wiki, why does this matter?”

Before I was a Dark Crystal fan, I was (and still am) a Muppet fan. I love the Muppets, but they’re not exactly known for how well they handle representation of people who aren’t cishet or American. Sure, I could find myself in characters like Gonzo, and while I do love him and what he represents (check out Ren Goetz’s Tough Pigs article on that!), there has to be more, right? I don’t mind a few “whatever” jokes, but I needed something more genuine.

When I first started getting into The Dark Crystal, I was really annoyed, angry even, at how black and white and rigid all over it all seemed. Was there no room for anything different? Anything new and “unusual”? Anything like me?

So, I began to headcanon Jen as transgender. I had no canonical basis for this, but because he looked and acted like me, and because I thought it was fun, he was suddenly transgender to me and to a handful of my queer friends. 

Then I started to dig a little deeper. I watched the movie time and time again. I read the books and comics. I drew art, wrote fanfiction, made edits set to my favorite music — I had been bitten, wholly, by the Dark Crystal bug. As I started consuming more Dark Crystal media, I realized that my little headcanon wasn’t so far off base. I put together pieces of lore (which, like most Henson properties, were scattered and kind of disjointed), and came to the understanding that it was very likely Jen was nonbinary or genderless, much like I am.

I felt represented, I felt seen. This 80’s fantasy protagonist was like me, and not just because I had declared it so. I had canonical proof, I could make an argument if I had to, I could write an essay (wink). Somebody like me was a hero. He saved the world, and had no gender while doing it. He fell in love, he went on adventures, he rescued people, he made friends, and he was nonbinary.

You might be wondering why, if I think Jen is genderless, I’m referring to him using he/him pronouns. There’s a few reasons for that, the first one being that that’s how he’s referred to in canon, and it makes this whole essay easier to understand and follow. Secondly, not all nonbinary people use they/them or neopronouns or no pronouns at all. I myself use he/him exclusively. Trans and genderqueer people and even cisgender people aren’t a monolith, their identities are shaped by their own feelings and experiences. Mine is. Jen’s is. Yours is. Kira’s, Rian’s, Deet’s, Brea’s, Aughra’s: that’s the beauty of it.

That is why I cling so hard to the diversity of gender in Thra, that is why I preach my little queer sermon to anyone who will listen. I want people to understand that there’s queer people and queerness everywhere, even in what seems like the most heterosexual, cisgender franchise on the surface.

It’s a hard time to be transgender. It’s never been easy, so with all this legislature and hatred coming from every angle, life can be suffocating. I find it difficult to have the strength to go on sometimes, I catch myself spiraling and wondering what the future will look like for me and my friends and loved ones. When I need comfort, I can find shelter in the distant world of Thra.

I can throw myself into research for a while and be more focused on which of Brian Froud’s drawings were turned into creatures for The Dark Crystal Bestiary than how many people oppose my simple existence. Genderless Jen, intersex Aughra, that nameless genderspicy Gelfling — they allow me to take solace in a world where people like me are heroes and important figures.

More importantly, Thra is a world where genderqueer people and queer people of all walks of life are simply allowed to be. They don’t have to justify their existence by being important (though some are), they can sit and swim and play their firca, raise families, study the stars, and they’re not treated as lesser. It feels almost unattainable in our own world, but it gives me hope that we can one day reach this level of peace, this level of acceptance and joy. 

Thra may be very different to our Earth, but there are many similarities, and one of those is the spirit of resilience that lives within us. The song we sing has changed, it sounds like hope. We just have to keep singing it.

Click here to sprout wings on the ToughPigs forum!

by Cypress R.

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